Feathered friends need care in the winter

Take care of our feathered friends this winter and teach youth an appreciation of nature.

As we approach the midst of winter and prepare for cold weather, it is important not to forget our feathered friends outside. While many species travel south to survive the winter, many other bird species stay here. We bundle up in layers of shirts, sweaters, warm winter coats, hats, scarfs and mittens. But how do our feathered friends stay warm?

Birds are warm-blooded creatures just like us. They maintain a body temperature of approximately 106 degrees Fahrenheit but have the ability to adapt their body temperatures, keeping most of their heat around their vital organs and lowering their body temperature around the extremities. Some bird species also have the ability to lower their body temperature during the nighttime, to help survive the cold, frosty nights.

Birds also have many adaptations that help them stay warm. Smaller birds seek shelter in dense foliage or crevices, huddle together, puff up their feathers and tuck in their head and feet. Bigger birds, geese for example, develop an additional layer of down feathers to help insulate them. In addition, all non-migrating birds put on fat in the preparation for the winter months, as this acts as insulator and energy source to survive the winter in northern climates. According to Audubon Magazine, up to 10 percent of a bird’s body weight may be fat in certain species, such as chickadees and finches.

To maintain this high fat density, birds need to spend most of their days seeking high-energy food, which can be scarce in nature during the winter. A simple way to help our feathered friends during the cold season is to hang up bird feeders. Feeding birds is a fun family activity that teaches kids about and to appreciate nature. The more you will get into bird feeding, the more you and your family will enjoy it. Keep a bird field guide on hand and identify the species you see at the feeders.

To attract a diversity of birds, set out a variety of bird feeders with different types of food. A tube feeder with perches filled with black sunflower and an assortment of seeds will attract finches and chickadees. Hopper-type bird feeders filled with sunflower and safflower seeds will attract birds such as cardinals and blue jays. Suet feeders will attract woodpeckers. For more information on what types of bird feeders and seed to use to attract different species, view the Audubon Guide to Winter Bird Feeding. The bird feeders you use don’t need to be expensive – the Madison Audubon Society developed a simple guide to making bird feeders out of recycled materials.

Birds not only need food in the winter but they also need fresh water and shelter. When thinking about changing or adding to your landscape, consider choosing bird-friendly, native plants. Evergreens provide shelter, seed heads and berries, which provide additional food. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a wonderful resource for birding enthusiasts, both the novice and advanced, and provides resources on feeding, landscaping, building nest boxes and much more.

If you really are getting into birding, consider participating in project feeder watch, which is a survey of birds that visit feeders in backyards, nature centers, etc. Feeder watchers periodically count the birds at their feeders from November to April and send the data to Project Feeder Watch. This helps scientists to get a broader picture of bird species, their abundance and movement during the winter months.

If you’d like to turn your birding interest into a 4-H club project, Michigan State University Extension has the resources and tools you need. So enjoy birding this winter! No matter if you do it on a small scale with your family, or on a bigger scale as a volunteer with a group of youth, you will teach youth an understanding and appreciation of nature.

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